Pam Gems was born in 1925 and grew up in the New Forest.
She began writing for the theatre in the early 1970s. Her first commercial success was Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi. In 1997 Queen Christina received its premiere with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did Piaf in 1978 and Camille in 1985.
She is also author of The Danton Affair (1986) and Marlene (1995), and her play about the artist Stanley Spencer, Stanley, won the Evening Standard Best Play Award in 1996 and the Olivier Best Play Award in 1997.
Pam Gems became a close friend after I interviewed her in December 1999. Subsequently whenever one of her plays was performed in the West End my wife and I were always at her side. I enjoyed her company and she mine as we seemed to have developed a special bond that was hard to define.
She led a difficult life partly due to her youngest daughter being born as a ‘Mongol’, a term she preferred to use herself over Down’s syndrome and to describe her daughter’s incontinence. Despite this terrible ordeal she was full of fortitude and a real delight to be with. Her professionalism never left her to the very end. I do really miss her, although we led different lives, but as I said earlier our relationship gelled from the very beginning of our encounter.
She sadly died in May 2011.
Your father died when you were only four years old, an event which was traumatic in its consequences for you. Do you have any memory of your father or of his death?
Yes, I do. I was the oldest of three children and I have memories of him playing with me. The next child, my brother, was asthmatic, and the baby had a heart defect, so they were invalids. I remember how my father could open a parcel without cutting the string, and peel an orange without breaking the peel. When he was dying they put him into what we knew as the workhouse, but the name had been changed to the infirmary. He was dying yet we were not allowed in to see him because we were children, but there was a kind nurse who would wheel him up to the window and because I was too small to reach my mother lifted me up so that I could kiss him. One day he gave me a lozenge – he had nothing else to give me – and of course it was hot in my mouth, and I was very puzzled as to why my father would want to poison me. When he died he left me his war book which I used to read in bed by the light of a candle – we didn’t have gas let alone electric light. I loved it because he gave it to me, but it was terrifying – there were cartoons of the Germans as boars with traps on their noses which ran with blood. I loved my father dearly, and no other man ever compares.
Did you get on with your mother?
No, I was the cause of her downfall. You see, my mother was one of six children, three of whom won scholarships, but it was not possible to take them up because the family had to eat. Both grandpas went in the First World War, so there was terrible poverty. My mother was very bright and she went to work as a maid for the woman who had been the mistress of Edward VII. When she heard my mother sing she said that her voice must be trained. Unfortunately my mother got pregnant after falling in love with my father who was a soldier, so that was the end of her possible career. She was very bright but she had no education, although she read four books a week from the library and listened to classical music on the gramophone. I was made the scapegoat for all this and I had to bring up my two younger brothers because she was charring all day in the big houses where they wouldn’t even give you an orange. That early experience has given me very strong feelings about class.
Your father’s death caused your mother to become – in your own words – a melancholic, someone of whom you were frightened, who had to be placated. And yet you say that you and your brothers were somehow in love with her. Can you talk about what gave rise to all those conflicted feelings?
Well, there was the fact that she was a widow and a younger widow than the widows from the First World War, so that in itself gave a little cachet – ‘my mother’s a widow, you know’ – but it wasn’t just that. Unlike me, she was tall and thin with blonde hair and pale blue eyes – frightening they were. We would hear people whisper in the street that she looked like Greta Garbo, and being very vain, she did her mouth and her eyebrows like Garbo. She was stunning, and during the war when she used to work as a hat-check girl in the local officers’ club, she had many opportunities to marry – men fell in love with her all the time. But she never got over my father. She never even looked at another man, and we had to suffer for that.
Your grandmother had a very strong influence on your life, much stronger than that of your mother. Was your mother jealous of that relationship, do you think?
I think she was, but of course everything is so puzzling for a child. We would go to my grandmother every Sunday, three miles there and three miles back, the youngest in the pushchair, the other two walking. My grandmother fed us, she gave us what little money she had, and also clothes she had been given by the gentry. My mother never had a good word to say for her, nor indeed for my Aunt May who was married to a successful man in the army and therefore had money. It wasn’t so much jealousy, more the poverty; it makes people full of hate.
You once confessed to neglecting your mother. What did you mean by that? And have you felt guilty about it?
Yes. I couldn’t wait to get away, you see. I joined up partly because of that, partly because of D-Day plus 2, when a lot of the chaps who were billeted on us got killed, and I had a rage and joined up. But it was mainly to get away from my mother; the house couldn’t contain the two of us. I was beginning to go out and have dates, and the atmosphere was diabolical.
Was she jealous of you when you went out with boys?
Yes, I think it had to be that. She was suppressing so much in herself. But we did adore her; it was like living with a goddess. And she was generous. The first fifty pounds she ever got, which was from singing at the night-club plus tips, she bought an upright Bechstein piano for my brother to play.
Did you mean it when you said in an interview I read: ‘I was the plain daughter of a beautiful woman…my father’s family were short and fat – I took after them, for which she never forgave me.’
It’s quite true. I remember walking across the recreation ground with her one day – I must have been nine or ten – and she said, ‘Walk in front of me or behind me. I don’t want to be seen walking with you, you fat thing.’ I also had cross eyes and glasses, which didn’t help. [laughter] It was pretty hopeless.
But despite all you say, you seem to have been successful with boys…
Darling, you couldn’t not be. I was fifteen when the war came. There were more men on the street than sand in the gutter. We used to get engaged all the time and wear the rings around our necks – I had five or six – and if one got killed we threw that ring away.
You were born into extreme poverty and now, through your own talents and hard work, you are successful and relatively affluent. Is childhood hardship character-building, would you say?
I don’t think you can generalize. Some people go under, others thrive. As a parent you try to protect your children, but even in a happy affluent, contented family you can’t offer complete protection. I’m inclined to think that success is far more dangerous, more corrupting, than hardship. One of the reasons I have never gone in for publicity, which I could easily have done, particularly when I was younger, is because I thought it would be bad for my children. I’ve seen the children of people who are famous, and they don’t do well.
Would you have been a very different person if you had been born into the sort of family whose houses you and your mother used to clean?
I think I would have been ghastly. I’m a bad enough snob as it is, simply from growing up in the kitchens of these people. The woman whose coach house my gran lived in had six indoor servants, not to mention two or three outside – imagine, all those servants for one woman! And when there were guests, my mother used to have to crawl in with no shoes and pads on her knees to light the fire so it would be glowing by the time people woke. I’ve done that too. Crawling is not nice. I hated these people though I also thought they were wonderful. Because they smelled so nice. My Aunt Ruby was private maid to a woman who was known as the Rose of Devonshire, though she was a drunk by the time we knew her. She used to take my aunt to Biarritz, and give her wonderful, handsewn silk underwear, which of course Ruby never wore. It was just brought out to be shown from time to time, and this while we were starving. Nowadays poor people can live off the detritus of others – there is so much. But in those days people had nothing except what you could poach and what you could grow yourself. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of the food was a good deal safer, but we were all so ignorant. We were brought up on white bread and sugar. People said, ‘Oh, you can’t give her meat, it’s much too strong for that little stomach.’ We were quite uneducated.
You won a scholarship to a grammar school and even working-class locals thought it was a waste for someone of your background. How hard was it for you and your family to take up that scholarship?
I had two chances at the scholarship, because my birthday was on 1 August. Technically I shouldn’t have been taking it the first year, but I was bright and my headmaster put me forward. But I was left-handed, and my writing in ink in those days was very bad, so when the letter arrived saying that I had won the scholarship, I thought, well they’ve made a mistake, and I just put the letter up behind the clock and I don’t think we looked at it for a couple of days. Then my mother read it and she said, memorably, ‘Well you can’t go of course, but you have had the honour of winning.’ Fortunately she mentioned it to the relieving officer – that was what we called the man from social security, he was very nice, one of those lost-generation men, crippled in the war, and when my mother told him he said that I must be allowed to take it up. He went to the British Legion, and they paid for my uniform and my books. I will always be grateful to them. So I went to grammar school, thanks to the fact that my mother was so frightened of this middle-class man, the relieving officer. When you were working-class in those days, you were very obedient, often for fear of losing your job. You did as you were told.
How did you fit into grammar school? Did you feel you were in the wrong place?
Fortunately there were a number of scholarship children in each form. We had the mark of Cain, of course, and the teachers treated us differently, and we weren’t asked to the class parties. I remember a girl called Amy May, the daughter of the headmaster – she was in my form and she palled up with the scholarship girls, partly because we were brighter and more fun, and her father hated this. He was a very cruel man. But some of the teachers were helpful and gave up their time to teach us how to say ‘how now brown cow’, instead of ‘heow neow breown ceow’, which was realistic of them. They knew we’d never get on in life, speaking as we did.
As a child did you feel any bitterness?
No. I think you’re so full of life, and there is so much to do, that there’s no time to feel bitter. I didn’t realize until many years afterwards that I had been quite stressed.
You say, ‘I never wanted to become a writer; I always was one.’ Did grammar school strengthen this self-belief?
I don’t think it needed to be strengthened. I wrote my first play at the junior school, when I was eight. Again I was lucky, for I attended a wonderful church school with a headmaster who’d grown up in Stratford-on-Avon and who spouted Shakespeare all the time. My first play was a fairy play for seven-year-olds, and I remember being extremely angry because Mrs Collins, their teacher, cut some lines, and I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that to the author. I’ve never got over it. [laughter] Writing came naturally to me – it wasn’t something I showed off about any more than I showed off about my fat legs.
Is the creative impulse every bit as strong now, or is it diminishing with the passage of time?
Sometimes when I look at something that I wrote ten years ago or so, I think, ‘God, what energy!’ and I don’t think I have that now – it’s almost a kind of sexual energy. But I come from a family who mature late, and I think that perhaps what I lose in energy I gain in profundity and wisdom.
Why did you choose to study psychology at university? Did you expect it to be a help in creating characters?
I didn’t know what psychology meant. I went up to university to do English, and when I got there the queue was round the block. I met and talked to another girl who was ex-navy like me and she told me they were going to sling a lot of people out at the end of the first term because they were oversubscribed. We service people were used to swinging the lead, so we went to find a short queue, thinking we’d be sure to get in. The shortest queue was psychology – it only had four people not counting us. ‘What’s it about?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘I’ve bugger all idea,’ but we signed up for it anyway.
And having signed up for it, did you enjoy it?
No, I hated it, because we were all more stressed by the war than we knew. I had been in the Fleet Air Arm where we lost far more in training than we ever did in combat. We used to put the aircraft up, then the ceiling would come down and they’d go into the nearest hill, partly because they were kids, partly because they in bad aircraft – the good aircraft were on carriers. So we were quite stressed, indeed a lot of us were very damaged. Besides, I didn’t agree with Jung or Freud, who were the gods there. It was all middle-class, Jewish, Viennese, in-de-siècle stuff. But I was a farm girl; I had stood and watched the horses being served, and I couldn’t subscribe to the Freudian basis of RIS, repressed infantile sexuality. Come off it, not where we came from. Also we had to visit loony bins, and they were terrifying then. All the boys used to faint. I’m afraid I have kept my hatred for a lot of psychiatry.
At one time, as a wife and mother, you apparently kept open house for troubled adolescents who had fallen out with their families. Was this as a result of your interest in psychology, or was it a purely human response?
It was simply because I’m a country peasant at heart and I always thought it was better to have the children under my roof and keep an eye on them. We had a huge house in Kensington when my children were adolescent, and they always had friends who were in trouble. One girl came for a night and stayed for a year, and brought her friend who was also heavily into drugs. In fact she died. I had such compassion for adolescent boys. I know it sounds rather doubtful, but having two younger brothers, both invalids, I get very affected when I see boys in trouble. Adolescent boys have more problems than girls. Girls know who they are; boys are never quite sure.
With all these troubled adolescents in the house, did it ever occur to you that you were perhaps venturing on dangerous territory? Were you never confronted by an angry parent, for example?
Oh yes, more than a few times. One woman got very upset because her daughter ran away from school and ended up with me, and I had to front for her when the police arrived. And somehow it all became my fault because I have given her house room. What was I supposed to do? Turn her out into the street? I also remember one upper-class boy whose family would be well known to you, and once he got into drugs and started on the needle, they couldn’t be rid of him fast enough, they simply didn’t want to know. But of course aristocrats don’t rear their own children; they’re reared by servants.
Turning to your plays, you are a feminist and your work has often shown women as victims, fighting for independence in a male-dominated world. Yet lately your tone has changed. Although you were never a man-hating feminist, you now actually see men as victims in the sex war, riven with fear and even hatred of women. Can you talk a little about how this happened and what you think it means for the future?
That’s a big question. I think the problem started perhaps with the industrialized nations of the world moving from heavy industry to light, with the result that medieval notions of honour being invested in male strength began to go out of the window. By the end of the nineteenth century the typewriter had been invented and women with their smaller fingers suddenly became viable commercially, and that has gone on and on through the computer age. When neo-feminism became a force and women began to assert their rights, they started to encroach on areas which had up till them been exclusively men’s. I know this sounds patronizing, but I feel a deep, almost maternal angst about men. I have three wonderful uncles, two wonderful sons, a wonderful grandson, and two wonderful bothers, and I do not believe you can have a society where men are demoted in this way. The breakdown of marriage has threatened the old notion of a man as the head of his family. It’s a man’s nature to be protective, and when he’s denied that he becomes baleful and angry, and I think it’s wrong. I believe in the family and I believe in the protection of the family, that women have a right to have children in a protective situation. I lost my father and I know from bitter experience what it’s like to be without a father. A father is a lovely idea, and by God, let’s save it. But to do that we have to have men who have self-respect and good jobs.
What does being a feminist mean in your terms nowadays?
It means what it always meant for me – fairness for every citizen, male or female, young or old. It doesn’t mean to say that women have to wear suits and behave like men. It means that every commercial building should have a crèche in it, because men and women should see their children. The old commuting thing where men left early in the morning and came back late at night meant that they might as well not have been fathers at all. The reason I love Steven Spielberg – though I’m not a fan of most of his films – is that I’m told he has a crèche with glass walls at his place, so that the people who work there can keep an eye on their children. That’s the mark of a civilized man.
You claim not to have known there was a middle class in Britain until you joined the Wrens, on the outbreak of war. Until then in your experience there had only been upper and lower classes. Are you still very much aware of class distinctions?
Well, legislation and time and habit are chipping away more and more. For example, when I was a child people spoke in an absolutely ridiculous way, a bit like some of the royal family speak now, you know, those tones which seem to suggest, ‘I’m very cross with you.’ Even the received English of the newsreader in the 1940s and 1950s now sounds slightly ridiculous, so we’re modifying all the time to the point where the ‘in’ dialect is now Essex. But while we still have a formalized aristocracy, that is to say, dukes and earls and the royal family, then we are still pegged in. We still have the public schools which were really created as breeding grounds for people to go out and run the empire and to govern. And that ethos still exists, that some are naturally born to govern.
Speaking, I think, of modern times, you say that the true artist addresses a classless society. What do you mean by that?
Laurence Olivier put it very well when he said that drama is an affair of the heart. To me, it’s quite simple: to write plays is to pierce people. Descartes said that feeling is thinking, and that is my criterion. You can become a politician and try to change things by putting an amendment, or you can be really subversive and write a play. It was fashionable in the 1970s, when there was all that pseudo-Marxism, to claim that plays don’t change anything. Well, if they don’t, I might as well shoot myself because I’ve been wasting the last thirty years of my life. The thing about drama is that it subverts; you can change the climate of opinion by telling jokes, or by using sexuality, suspense, or any of the other tricks of the trade, providing you manage to keep people sitting forward. Once they sit back you might as well give up. I am an anarchist by nature, in the true sense of the word, not in the sense of blowing things up, but by devolution of power from the centre.
Do you agree with Tony Blair’s recent claim that the class war is over?
No. The dear boy is being misled. However, he would be right to say that the upper classes no longer dominate in the way they did a hundred years ago. They have a certain cachet in certain quarters, but that’s all; real influence and power they don’t have.
You were well into your forties before you realized that – as you put it – to expect sexual loyalty of a man was to expect an abnormal man. Was it a shock and disappointment to discover this?
I suppose it was. First loves are romantic loves, and you pledge fidelity, but then of course you get wise and you realize that your own energy gets deployed in rearing the children, that desire wears off, and that everything changes. I have known a man and wife to be completely faithful, sometimes in cases where they don’t have a very strong sexual urge, for example, but I can’t believe that passion can last for seventy years. In cases like that they just become loving companions.
You have had a long and stable marriage to your husband Keith, but you think that women should accept that total fidelity to one woman is impossible for a man. How hard has it been for you to accept that?
Intellectually not hard at all, but emotionally it is rather different. As Lady Longford said when she was asked if she ever thought of divorcing her husband, ‘No, never, but I have often thought of murdering him.’ That’s my feeling too.
You’ve always said that it is the deception you hate…why is the deception worse than the infidelity itself, would you say?
I’ve tried to think this one through, and I believe it may be something to do with the secrecy. If your husband comes back and says, oh, I saw Jeannie today, she was looking well but she’s having trouble with her left toe, I would say, fuck off, I don’t want to know about your bloody mistress, she’s boring anyway. On the other hand, if I see my husband going out with a certain look on his face and I know he’s up to mischief, I resent it.
Do you accept that some women might prefer the deception?
I think a lot of women would rather not know, because once you know you’re exposed to murderous feelings, however noble you try to be, however much you might want to rise above it.
You express tolerance of male lust, but contempt for male dishonesty; yet you say of Stanley Spencer, about whom you have written the play Stanley, that his mistake was to try and bring the truth of his art into his private life. Is this a change of mind, or a resigned acceptance of the way of the world? Why do you think he was mistaken?
Because he made an awful mess of it. It proved that whatever he did, it was wrong. It was naïve and innocent of him to imagine that the standards of total truth that have to apply in art and could apply in real life. We’re all sinners according to Christian belief and indeed most other beliefs, and I’ve had to learn, as I suppose every woman has had to learn, and now a few men, that what can’t be cured must be endured. And, you know, if the price of fidelity is to have some boring guy underfoot all the time, well who needs it? We live so long now, which makes marriage for life even more impossible. People used to die by the time they were forty.
But why do you think women feel so strongly about sex? A woman can be married to a man for twenty or thirty years, have children with him, a happy life, security and everything, but when she hears that on a trip to New York he bedded another woman she goes out of her mind…
I’ve known friends who have done just that. I just hope attitudes can change.
The point is it often means nothing to the man – his willy goes up for one night and then it’s forgotten about. He still loves his wife, in fact probably he feels even more loving to his wife because he betrayed her…
Yes, the little present is nicer than usual, and everybody wins. On the other hand, when everything is invested in the marriage, women are very vulnerable.
You have always been fascinated by the business of lying and truth-telling, and the dilemmas surrounding them. You say: ‘We live on lies – we’d kill each other if we didn’t lie.’ Could you elaborate on that perhaps?
We lie to each other all the time. We suppress information, we act out different parts to different people – our children, our business acquaintances, our close friends. And it’s a loving thing. You can’t go into a room and say to your dearest friend that she look flabbier than ever, even though that may be what you think. Of course, there are vile lies, vicious lies, but not so many; most people lie to protect themselves and to protect others.
What about the Jonathan Aitken lie? What about the Jeffrey Archer lie? Are they to be morally condemned, or are they just examples of frail humanity?
[laughter] Oh, you do ask difficult questions. Their behaviour is quite disgraceful, but I have no desire to wag the finger at those two boys. I mean, everybody knew at the time that Jeffrey Archer was lying. Why else give two thousand quid to a tart? It’s so silly. You know what I think? I think he won his libel suit and got the five hundred thousand pounds because that judge was effectively saying to tarts, ‘Just don’t even think of it.’ If Jeffery Archer hadn’t won, then every tart could go to the News of the World and say, ‘I was with such-and-such a judge last week.
In your thirties you realized that you had always been attracted to men who were rather repressed, the kind of men who grew up in the big houses you worked in…’England,’ you say ‘has always been in a mess sexually, we send our boys away to school and all that.’ Have you analysed what it is that attracts you to this type?
I think that my attitude to men is extremely maternal, being the older sister with two younger brothers. My bowels turn over for some men, particularly when they’ve been damaged psychologically. It’s worse than a physical aliment which you can easily survive. But when your soul has been damaged by a cruel mother, it’s quite different. I had a cruel mother, and that can be worse than being hit, you know.
Your youngest child was born with what’s normally known as Down’s syndrome, but you prefer the word Mongol, believing that to be called one of a race, however inaccurately is better than being a syndrome. Do the rest of your family agree with you about this?
I don’t think they have feelings either way, because we never refer to her as either. She is Lalla, our daughter, sister, darling one.
You speak of your daughter only with great fondness, but caring for her must have made life more difficult for you as a mother, especially when you found that your friends deserted you. How did it affect you and other members of the family?
The children were always very protective of her; it seemed to be natural for them. For me it was difficult. I think it was Bob Bolt who said, in A Man for all Seasons, ‘People move towards the light and they move away from the dark.’ And anyone who has had a tragedy will know that people stay away, because they feel awkward, they can’t do anything, and they don’t want to feel fed up. I experienced all that. But what it did for me in some ways, was excellent, because I was a sentimental southerner and it put steel in my soul. I got quite angry and it became a question of ‘love me, love my Lalla’. Or else. I would deliberately take her out with me, even though she was incontinent, and when she wet the floor, I would just watch how people behaved. I became very anarchic in the popular sense of the word, because I couldn’t hope to be middle-class or grown-up or intellectual, simply because I had this barmy kid. She took up a lot of my time, but it was wonderful.
If amniocentesis had been available, would you have taken the test?
Yes, I probably would have. And I would have aborted, yes.
You say religion helped, though you are not an orthodox Christian. Did you have a religious upbringing?
Intensely. I come from a town with a priory church which has been there for nine hundred years, and I went to the church school. My brothers were choirboys, so I heard oratorios and organ music throughout my childhood. The church and the music were unbelievably beautiful, but I could never quite work Christianity out. The Father and the Son, yes, but the Holy Ghost I never quite got.
I’ve read somewhere that you believe in reincarnation…is that a serious belief?
I think there’s some evidence for it. I used not to believe it, but now I have an open mind about it. I myself have also had many psychic experiences, including out-of-body experiences. After my son David was born, for example, I was in bed with flu and I suddenly found I was floating out of the window, and when I looked along I could see bright green grass growing in the gutter, and then suddenly I was back in my body. I said nothing for a week, and one day I mentioned to Keith that I thought the gutter might be blocked, and sure enough when he put a ladder up, the gutter was full of grass. I went up after him and it was exactly as I had seen it when I floated out of my body.
Are you afraid of death?
Sometimes I am surprised that I am not more afraid, and I think that has something to do with being a gardener. All this cyclic reduction from compost to flower to dying seems very natural to me. Of course, like everyone else I fear illness and being put in a position where you can’t behave with dignity.
Stanley Spencer is underrated and unpopular, you believe, because his icons are Christian, and you think that people are tired of Christian iconography – ‘After the Holocaust, nobody believed in anything any more,’ you say. The Christian God may be unfashionable but he does rather refuse to die, wouldn’t you say?
I think that’s true. People are generally post-Christian until there is a tragedy or a crisis. You know, it’s like when you go through a ward of wounded soldiers – they’re all crying out for God or their mother. We can’t throw God away because in extremis that’s where we go for help. So there you are. But there is so much about orthodox Christianity that I don’t care for. It’s such a miserable religion, and so anti-sex. Catholicism is the worst of all. Why be celibate? The idea of denying the body that God’s given you, assuming you believe in God, simply doesn’t make sense to me. The Hindu religion is far better. If we’re going to enshrine our lack of knowledge about the Great Out There in some kind of formal belief, why not make it nice? What’s wrong with hedonism?
Do you find it strange that we have elected, and apparently continue to admire, a prime minister who is an avowed and practising Christian?
No, I think it’s a damned good thing. It makes him a good boy, makes him live by the rules. When I grew up you had the church and class structure which made for a stabilization in society which no longer exists. People nowadays are Macbethian; since there’s no God they can do as they want, and the devil take the hindmost. Young people say to themselves, I’ve only got one life, so I’ll get as much money as I can, and bugger everybody else.
You’re a passionate defender if the family but see it as an endangered species. Why are you so worried? Is it not possible to redefine and reshape family units?
There are many groups who are like families but who aren’t blood related, and they can be very successful, whether they are gay couples or sisterly communities – nuns, for example. But there is something very special about the blood relation; it’s inimitable, and in times of real stress there’s a bond that isn’t the same if there isn’t a blood relationship. I’m influenced by the fact that I come from the New Forest and in that area I had about forty relations – I miss that, very much. And I actually think it’s the natural primate way of living, something we have to try and establish for the sake of our psychological health.
You accuse extreme feminists of having taken individualism too far and in so doing bringing about the destruction of the family. How could this have been prevented? Wasn’t it made inevitable by easier divorce, equal education and vastly improved opportunities for women, including reliable birth control? You surely wouldn’t want to deprive women of these freedoms…
No, and that’s a very good question. You see, I think these are stages that we have come through. Progress is always by the pendulum. Women started off trying to model themselves on men, but now it is becoming fashionable to have babies again, and settle for domesticity. It’s all right to stay at home now, but not of course if we are just to put our brains to sleep for ever; we constantly have to find new ways.
When you were younger you spoke about the writer’s desire to change the world. Is there any of that idealism left, would you say, or has something else taken its place?
I don’t know how to be honest about that. To write at all you have to be very arrogant. In my metier you have to say to people, give me money, sit down, shut up and listen to me for two hours. You tend to justify it by saying, ‘I want to change the world, I want to make it a better place,’ but as I get older I realize it isn’t true, because as a writer you always disappoint. Ibsen disappointed first the left and then the right, and I always disappoint the feminists who never get what they want from me.
What would you most like to be remembered for, first as a writer, and then as a person?
I particularly like several of my plays, and I would like to think they had an afterlife. As a person, I’m a fat lazy old thing but I would like people to remember me as always having an open door and a pot of tea. I can’t ask for more.